Drivers Seeking Grip Like Never Before at Florence

The South Carolina bullring has lost even more grip if that's possible.


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For those who haven’t raced weekly at Florence Motor Speedway this season, a lot has seemingly changed over a summer sitting in the grand strand humidity, and it has created an unexpected hurdle in advance of the South Carolina 400 on Saturday.

"This place, even from the Icebreaker (in February) has lost a lot of grip," said Lee Pulliam Performance driver Brandon Pierce.

Which, okay, the old pavement at Florence hasn’t had any modicum of grip in well over a decade so that doesn’t fundamentally change the approach for this weekend, but it might force everyone to recalibrate their definitions of what a good driving race car feels like here.

Might, being the operative word, unless …

"With so many race cars, and so many divisions, I do feel like they can lay down some rubber and get the race track back," Pierce added. "It’s definitely tricky. I feel like I had a pretty good handle on this place, and this just threw me out the window today.

"We tried a whole lot of different stuff, and it doesn’t drive bad, but I just wish we had a little bit more speed. But even then, I’m not worried with these tire conservation races, because they fall right into my wheelhouse anyway."

But the point still stands that no one knows what to prepare for because the track could take on a lot of rubber and grip overnight and then the field is back to square one prior to time trials.

The best opinion might have come from Ty Majeski, the only driver to have won this race over its first two years, but he didn’t make the trip this November. Instead, Mason Diaz is in the undefeated Chad Bryant Racing No. 77 and he blew a right front in practice that led to him doing what he pulling a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ when driving off the track.

"I thought we were pretty good before that happened, but we’ll see once we put this nose on it," Diaz said.

Driving for R&S Race Cars, Kaden Honeycutt focused entirely on race runs on Friday and picked up the same narrative as his fellow contenders.

"It’s way different than this race last year," Honeycutt said. "I feel like it’s lost even more grip, which is wild to say because it hasn’t had any grip in five years anyway… but I don’t have a doubt that it’s going to be fun."

There is a practice session on Saturday morning, but most expect to use that session for mock qualifying runs in advance of a time trials session that first locks in 20 cars, a second round that locks in 10 more and then a final round that locks in the final 10 in addition to two provisional starters.

There are 53 cars on the ground.

For the 42 that take the green flag, most of them are prepared to flex tire conservation muscles that rarely get used, as there is no surface on Earth that races like the one in Florence.

"I love it because I came up racing Pensacola and it’s exactly what I’ve been racing the past five years," Honeycutt said. "I feel like I’m in familiar territory. I know how to do this. I don’t know if it will be like last year, running three seconds off the pace at the green flag, but we’ll see.

"It depends on who the leader is and what pace he sets, and hopefully it’s us."

Carson Kvapil of JR Motorsports finished second to Majeski last year and chalked up a lot of the final results to luck on this old abrasive surface.

"With that said, I really enjoy this place, it’s just different," Kvapil said. "But you do have to be lucky, you really do, riding around three seconds off the pace. I say it came down to luck last year because Majeski gained 10 spots by missing the crash and he had waited to take his tires. Then it was 10 to go and you’re just holding on.

"But I really do enjoy this kind of racing, it’s different and fun, but you have to have more luck than speed."

Unlike the first two years of the South Carolina 400, the race will be run in three stages instead of two with a halfway break, so Pierce thinks that will add a new wrinkle to the various tire strategies.

"Carson is right about the luck, but I do think you see the same guys up front at the end of these races because they know how to save and know how to play the strategies right," Pierce said. "Unless they have some misfortune, those same guys were up front.

"At the Icebreaker, the 400 and the CARS Tour races, it’s us, the JR Motorsports cars and then Ty. I’m excited. I’ve had this one circled for awhile especially with the summer we’ve had and what happened at Caraway and Martinsville."

And then there’s the Dale Earnhardt Jr. element -- with the two-time Daytona 500 winner and two-time Busch Grand National Series champion offering that he had a good day of practice as well.

"We’d like to be a little faster," Earnhardt said. "We’re fighting tight. We want to get off the corner better in Turn 4. You have to be patient to roll the bottom around this place. Trying to hustle and trying to get more out of it here ain’t ever going to work out. We got to get a little more out of it. We’re about a tenth to half a tenth off Carson."

With that said, Pierce said he expects this race to run through Earnhardt following his third place finish at North Wilkesboro behind Kvapil and Diaz.

"At Wilkesboro, he fed us that he was worried about getting his butt kicked, but we’re not buying it this weekend," Pierce said with a laugh. "I haven’t heard him say it yet, but I know he knows his way around this place too so he’s going to be hard to beat."